Ilham Aliyev, the ‘Emperor’


As the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group co-chairs continue to spin their wheels in their efforts to settle the Karabakh issue, armed with the mantra that there is only a non-military solution to the Karabakh conflict, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev continues to escalate the war rhetoric in an echo chamber where there is no opposing response.

The main focus of the OSCE co-chairs — the US, Russia, France and the UK — is the Karabakh conflict, and yet, President Aliyev goes over their heads to claim Armenia’s territory as well.

The first such claim was made on February 10 when he was addressing his New Azerbaijan Party Congress.

Many in Armenia as well as around the world dismissed that statement as harmless election campaign rhetoric. However, he reiterated these claims on March 19 in his Novruz (new year’s) message to the Azerbaijani people. He promised to return Azerbaijanis to Yerevan, Armenia’s southeastern Syunik province and the area around Lake Sevan, describing those territories as “historical Azerbaijani lands.”

He concluded his speech by stating, “This is our strategic goal and we must gradually move to achieve that goal.”

To lay claims on a neighbor’s territory is a declaration of war in international law. As many countries reserve the right to make a preemptive strike in similar situations, Aliyev has provided ample legal base for the exercise of just such a right. But the situation in the Caucasus is too complex to resort launch a tit-for-tat response.

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In the broader political context, Azerbaijan’s older brother Turkey has been bullying its neighborhood with impunity and is inspiring Azerbaijan to emulate its games. Armenia’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman Tigran Balayan has stated that Aliyev’s territorial appetite for Armenia is growing “because of the indifference of the world community.”

During a press conference with Luxembourg’s foreign minister on March 27 in Yerevan, Edward Nalbandian, Armenia’s foreign minister, stated, “Azerbaijani creativity has reached a point that it calls the 2,800-year-old Armenian capital of Yerevan ‘Azeri territory.’”

This continuing saga has far surpassed the nature of election rhetoric to become a strategic and existential threat to Armenia. There are some objective reasons that are fueling Aliyev’s overconfidence, chief among them being the perception of Armenia’s weakness.

Emil Sanamyan, who is knowledgeable about Azerbaijan’s internal politics, suggests there is an emotional component to Aliyev’ outrageous claims. Indeed, he states that Aliyev’s father (and predecessor), Heydar, is believed to hail from rural Zangezur, whereas his mother’s family traces its roots to Yerevan and Spitak. Both families were displaced to Nakhichevan during the Armenian-Azerbaijan fighting of 1918-1920.

Before 1918, there was no nation or country of Azerbaijan for Mr. Aliyev to base his historic claims against Armenia. Sure enough, Azerbaijan’s petrodollars have bought some pseudo academics to manufacture an ersatz history for Azerbaijan to gain legitimacy among the family of nations.

A Moscow-based Azerbaijani analyst, Fouad Abassov, who has been trying to convince Russian media that Azerbaijan is a more loyal ally of Russia than Armenia, recently conducted an interview with prominent Azerbaijani political scientist Orkhan Jemal on the Karabakh issue. The latter stated that Azerbaijan will not only recapture Karabakh but also Armenia. This demonstrates that the issue has moved from the level of election rhetoric to academic circles and has become one of the components of Azerbaijan’s state policy.

Here again Azerbaijan’s economic progress and integration within the Caucasus economy contrasts with Armenia’s isolation.

Although the messages from Moscow’s official circles seem somewhat reassuring, the comments of its pundits do not differ much from Azeri analysts. A Russian think tank called Analysis of Strategies and Technologies has conducted a study and released its conclusions, which predict the worsening of the situation during the coming months for the following reasons: a) Azerbaijan’s technical superiority, b) possible rise in oil prices to further building Azerbaijan’s arsenal, c) demographic imbalance, especially Armenia’s depopulation and d) the perception of Armenia’s inability to protect territories outside Nagorno Karabakh. Any outbreak of hostilities may end in Baku’s favor.

There are certainly some truths in these conclusions. However, had Azerbaijan’s leadership been convinced of the veracity of the above statements, they would not have missed an opportunity for a blitzkrieg. The April 2016 skirmish convinced the Azeri side that they are not at that stage — yet.

In modern warfare, the numerical superiority of combatants is no strategic advantage as the entire operation is based on technology. The Armenian army is numerically inferior to its Azerbaijani counterpart but military planners in Armenia believe that they have the technological edge on their side.

If war breaks out, Armenia will be squeezed from both sides, Azerbaijan’s mainland and Nakhichevan, where a Turkish base has already been created. In that instant, Ankara and Moscow will have to consult each other, with Ankara certainly backing Azerbaijan. But will Russia support Armenia in the same manner?

When the US abandoned the Kurds in Syria, leaving them to the tender mercies of Turkey, Ankara consulted and secured Moscow’s neutrality to launch its Olive Branch assault on Afrin. The same scenario may repeat in the Caucasus, too.

We have to be bear in mind that the appointment of John Bolton as President Trump’s National Security advisor may turn the entire world into a powder keg. He is reported to have advised Israel to attack Iran. If, God forbid, he imparts the same advice to Turkey, forcing that NATO ally to face Russia, then a situation may get out of hand. Mr. Bolton has been known to be a diplomat whose reckless political impulses create dangerous consequences.

As Armenia has been improving its relations with Europe, all the while complaining about Moscow’s arms sales to Azerbaijan, President Vladimir Putin’s government has dispatched a delegation to Armenia to make sure that Yerevan does not stray too far from the Russian fold.

Russia intends to fulfill its allied commitments to Armenia in the security and defense sectors, assured Konstantin Zatulin, the first deputy chairman of the State Duma Committee for the Commonwealth of Independent States Affairs, during a press conference in Armenia’s Parliament.

“In the future,” he added, “Russia will also view any military threat against Armenia as a threat against itself.” He also dismissed Aliyev’s threats and claims as election rhetoric.

At this point, it is a serious question whether Mr. Zatulin’s statements and reassurances can serve as a counterbalance to Aliyev’s rhetoric and the predictions of Russian pundits.

Although Armenia’s armed forces are taking these verbal threats and the Azeri war games very seriously, the politicians and the news media there are not. There is a nonchalance which is very dangerous.

Aliyev may be behaving as a modern-day emperor but we may laugh at him only at our own peril.


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